The Chinese government intends, by 2020, to give each of its 1.4 billion citizens a rating that reflects their financial standing, criminal record, and social media conduct. Neatly packaged into a single number, these ‘credit codes’ will score each person on their performance as a citizen, affecting everything from priority bookings at hotels through to finding potential partners. A leaked 2014 governmental memo describes the initiative, which will be mandatory, as a systematic effort to ‘commend sincerity and punish insincerity’: in other words, by providing an external regulator of morality, the government hopes to create a new ‘sincerity culture’ for China.
Smaller-scale experiments of a similar kind run by private Chinese companies have been underway for years. One introduced by Sesame Credit, the financial wing of online shopping platform Alibaba, assigns ratings to purchases in order to assess its users’ habits; it is a system where buying diapers, implying a ‘sense of responsibility’, rates higher than buying video games, which ‘indicates idleness’. Those with good scores are encouraged to flaunt them. The project teamed up with matchmaking giant Baihe to give prominent spots on the dating site to those with high ratings. In an interview, the Vice President of Baihe stated that the partnership simply provides ‘one more filter for people to know each other better.’
The willingness to experiment with social credit systems is symptomatic of a recent – and intense – interest in engineering greater societal openness and cohesion in modern Chinese society. The speed and scope of the government’s solution, driven by the special ease with which Big Data can be harnessed to such ends within China, appears chilling, even dystopian, to most international commentators. Yet the project cannot be dismissed as simply a tightening of control by a totalitarian regime with unique resources at its fingertips. Why has China, out of any country, been the first to implement such a radical solution for the seemingly simple need to ‘[know] each other better’?
From the 20th century onwards, questions of public morality, interpersonal relations, and the place of an individual in a community have been tumultuous and politically charged. Modernity swept into China in the wake of the 1919 revolution, dismantling many of the social norms and rules governing how people related to each other. As thousands of years of rigid social order underpinned by Confucianism and imperial rule gave way to a series of abrupt political upheavals, many of the certainties of Chinese life were changed utterly, rebuilt, reformed, and then changed again. This was the era in which the individual self, long buried in a strong social sense of collective identity, became briefly visible – though it was still inexorably tied up with an individual’s social roles. And while the early stages of the Cultural Revolution provided a sense of liberation on an individual level for those who Mao’s devastating rule gave way to the pragmatic economic policies of Deng Xiaoping, the de facto leader of the late 1970s, who held that economic development ‘is the only hard truth’. Private companies were reopened for business, and people set about to put the bitterness of the last decades behind them by the most obvious course of action: making a lot of money. Bureaucrats and policy-makers mouthed Marx and Lenin, but in practice promoted the free market. Society, particularly an emergent class system that placed the nouveau riche second only to Party officials, became increasingly bound up with a laissez- faire economic liberalism. In the wake of 1989’s Tiananmen massacre, it was especially evident that Chinese-branded communism, heralded as an alternative ideology to capitalism, had collapsed into a certain hollowness. Deng’s policies steered the country to immense prosperity in a few short decades, but the speed at which the country developed such uniquely intense free market assumptions left behind what some in China call 精神空虚 jīngshén kōngxū – a spiritual void.
At an interpersonal level, the aftereffects of such radical changes to society are encapsulated in a 2011 incident that shocked the nation. In the southern city of Foshan, a two-year- old girl nicknamed Little Yueyue (‘Little Joy’), wandered away from home and was run over by a passing van. Security cameras from a nearby store record many people walking past the place where she lay dying. A truck even ran over her legs as she lay in the street. It took eighteen passersby before someone, an old woman searching for scrap metal, attempted to help. Little Yueyue became the country’s Kitty Genovese; as her story went viral on the Chinese internet, endless conversations circulated about the loss of 仁 rén (‘humaneness’; social courtesy) within Chinese culture. Many commentators linked the indifference of the passersby to the fact that altruism was not only no longer valued in society, but treated with suspicion and liable to land one in trouble (做好事被恶 zuò hǎoshì bèi è, ‘doing something helpful and getting cheated in the process’). The newspaper People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the CCP, attempted to stem the tide by speaking of problems faced by all rapidly developing cities, arguing that such incidents are ‘unavoidable during the country’s process of urbanization’ – little comfort, surely, to Yueyue’s parents.
What responsibilities should a person have to a complete stranger? This, and many other questions, seem unanswerable by the post-Deng era of hollow ‘hard truths’. They are easily situated within the rising global popularity of practical ethics, as individuals struggle to understand their roles and worth in a world which has shifted from a ‘market economy’ to a ‘market society’. Perhaps we can think of the government’s social credit system, with its emphasis on external, top-down solutions to the problems of social cohesion and openness, as one of two very different approaches. The second, in many senses its antithesis, is encapsulated in the unlikely, explosive popularity of an American philosopher named Michael Sandel on the Chinese internet. At the time of Yueyue’s death, Sandel found himself at the centre of Chinese university students’ search for their own answers to questions of morality, meaning, and – perhaps most importantly – whether justice, in the sense of rules that govern society, should be a quality primarily external or internal to the self.
Perhaps Sandel’s emphasis on inescapable questions with difficult, subjective answers is the key to his allure. In 2010, a group of volunteers called ‘Everyone’s Television’ began subtitling American TV shows for a Chinese audience. After burning through their supply of sitcoms, they came upon his recently televised lecture series: Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?. The series was to receive a spike in fame as soon as it become available in Chinese, watched almost 20 million times on the Chinese internet in 2010 alone. Sandel found himself on the cover of Chinese Esquirewiththeheadline‘MastersofOurTime’; he was named China’s ‘most influential foreign figure’ by China Newsweek the same year.
The course starts, much as you would expect, with a discussion of the ethical contradictions raised by the trolley problem: If you were the driver of that out-of-control train, would you switch tracks to kill one person instead of five? Say you were observing from a nearby bridge, and beside you is a person who is much heavier than you. Would youpushthemovertheedgetostopthetrain?If not, how are the two situations different? Sandel calls on students from the packed lecture hall to give their opinions, prodding the conversation along where necessary. The lecture ends with no conclusions as to which is the morally preferable course of action, but instead with a lingering question: ‘What’s the right thing to do?’
‘What’s the right thing to do?’ is the motto of Sandel’s hugely popular Harvard lecture series, Justice. He insists such a question must come with a disclaimer: Philosophy confronts us with what we already know, but it does so in strange, new ways that can never be ‘unthought or unknown.’ For this reason, asking such questions is dangerous, and Sandel warns they might make us worse citizens before they make us better ones. And though we have asked them throughout human history without reaching definitive answers, he argues this demonstrates their inescapability: ‘we live some answer to these questions every day.’
By 2012 – the year Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets was published – he was speaking to packed and enraptured halls of students across China. During a 2012 lecture tour, students on Xiamen University campus queued for the best part of a day just to get standing space; before the talk began, the university’s president phoned the event’s organizers and asked them to keep attendees calm. One student called out to Sandel in the post-speech pandemonium of a later lecture in the tour: ‘Your class saved my soul.’
In his talk at Xiamen, Sandel asks his audience to consider what moral weight we might attribute to free market practices. He brings in a contemporary news piece: Wang Shangkun, a teenager from a poor part of Anhui province, was recruited in a chat room to sell his kidney for $3,500; returning home with a brand-new iPad and iPhone, he promptly went into renal failure. But, as Sandel reminded his audience, there are 1.5 million people in China who need organ transplants, and only ten thousand organs are available yearly through legal channels. Is a free, legal market in organs a valid solution?
By facilitating such discussions, Sandel intends to reinsert a moral dimension back into liberal discourse. It is his opinion that ‘a more direct conversation about morality in public life’ is a fix for a certain ‘moral emptiness’ which arises from value-neutral politics. Speaking of political and economicissuessansmorality,Sandelargues,is not only uninspiring, but creates a vacuum easily filled by fundamentalist thinking and strident nationalism. From his point of view, we should be asking more questions about ‘right things’; the question of markets and what can be for sale is ‘really a question about how we want to live together.’
Of course, discussing the moral quandaries posed by a ‘market society’ has particular resonance in a country where everything, from organs through to places in kindergartens, seems to be for sale. The past few decades of economic growth have left little room for philosophizing: journalist James McGregor recalls meeting a smuggler during the early 2000s who told him: ‘Freedom in China is a pocketful of money. In China, you either have money or you have to be obedient.’ Sandel himself observes that ‘In the societies where [Justice] has caught fire, there has not been the occasion … for serious public discussion of big ethical questions.’ Questions like these give students raised in the so- called ‘spiritual void’ a framework to talk seriously, but not subversively, about pressing social issues.
Sandel is one answer among many sprung up in recent years after the ‘atomised’ religious revival of the early 2000s. The Cultural Revolution called upon young Chinese to smash ‘the Four Olds’: old customs, old habits, old culture and old ideas, that knitted the community together for thousands of years. While this directive did dismantle many outward or organised aspects of traditional culture, destroying relics and shrines does not get rid of underlying religious belief. The most bizarre manifestation of this was the Cultural Revolution’s mango hysteria. Mangoes gifted from Mao to workers were preserved in formaldehyde, copied in wax, and toured the country in a series of sacred processions. As the mania increased, mangoes became the centre of rituals that closely echoed Buddhist and Daoist traditions, with wax fruit even being placed on altars and bowed to by workers. Mango-worshipping was to last just eighteen months, but it demonstrated that even in the most oppressive years of Mao’s rule, belief was alive and well in China.
Yet there is a sense in post-Deng China that the modern alternatives to traditionally rigid belief structures are more varied; less definitive. Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, folk religions, Christianity, and even fortune-telling have all seen strong 21st century revivals, but the sheer variety on offer serves to underline the extent to which an attitude to religion has shifted to include room for individual preference. One might go to a Christian church to pray for a good outcome, but on the way home drop by a Buddhist and a Confucian shrine just to hedge one’s bets. A search for meaning in modern China has a complex relationship with tradition, but more than ever before it has become an individual search, in the modern era’s ‘land of the unencumbered self’.
Even if it might address ‘the big questions’, philosophy is not a belief system as such. However, in a sense, Sandel’s philosophy is one answer among many within the context of this broad religious revival. His status as a celebrity philosopher – whose classes ‘save souls’ – is symptomatic of a wider, quasi-spiritual interest in individual responsibility and purpose, and particularly to what extent a person is bound by the society in which they live. Sandel may emphasise finding one’s own answers to questions of morality, but his philosophy is a derivative of communitarianism, which places emphasis on an individual’s role in a community.
What is unique about the ideas Sandel promotes, as alternatives to many other communitarian ideologies competing for primacy in China, is captured in what philosophers Henry Rosemont and Roger Ames have described as ‘onions versus peaches’. According to their Confucian role ethics, a person is entirely constituted by their relationships and social positions, and in this way they are like an onion: no matter how many layers down, the self is composed of these social roles. Sandel has been accused of similar thinking, though as early as Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982) he argues that, though the self may be composed of the roles and attributes imposed by social environments, it also contains an unencumbered, individual core. People may be shaped by their communities, but they have an autonomous, peach-like ‘pit’ at their centre.
A revitalisation of the onion mode of thinking occurred particularly after Tiananmen, as the CCP has recognised the need to respond to jīngshén kōngxū on a social, as well as a top- down, level. Realistic Responses (1991), a manifesto by the China Youth Daily Ideology and Theory Department, outlines the plan to revive Chinese nationalism as an alternative to a hollowed-out, obsolete socialism. It proposes a hybrid approach of realist nationalist interests, concerning China’s place as a rising global power, and a renewed pride in the sophistication of ancient Chinese culture. In the mid-2000s, Confucian temples began to be revived in China’s main cities, and the Chinese government opened hundreds of Confucius Institutes worldwide. Viewed as a quintessential part of traditional culture, Confucianism, with its emphasis on order and loyalty, carries with it a nostalgic sense of Chinese identity. It also provides a kind of ‘moral vocabulary’ suited to Party agendas, advocating as it does for a ‘harmonious society’ – used by the CCP to imply one without debate or dissent. In 2010, the ‘Confucius Peace prize’ was established; its first recipient was Putin, for his work in bringing ‘safety and stability to Russia’. Supporters of the revival effort view it as an answer to the ego-centric philosophies of Western thought (the institutes have, inevitably, been accused of suppressing opinions that do not tow Party lines).
In actuality, Sandel’s philosophy and traditional Confucianism both disagree with the view, in the Rawlsian style of liberalism, that ‘justice’ – an external set of rules – is the fundamental quality of a good society. In traditional Confucianism, the term 法 fǎ (law), closely related to 刑 xíng (criminal law), functions as a comparative term for ‘justice’. Traditional Confucian ideas of social harmony see 法 fǎ as secondary to 礼 lǐ, a word meaning ‘ritual propriety’; lǐ encapsulates the norms, acts of courtesy and etiquette that tie an individual to a society socially and emotionally. Confucians advocate a community that does not need justice (or laws) as its primary regulator, and a society’s total reliance on laws, therefore, is an indication that its social fabric has deteriorated. Harmony in a traditional Confucian view is a different concept to conformity, and more closely resembles a reconciliation of oppositions than it does the homogenous voice of 21st century Confucianism as promoted by the CCP.
What would Sandel’s opinion be on the government’s forthcoming social ranking system? He does not personally come out against external impositions of morality, nor against China’s rather top-down approach to social harmony. While local governments might occasionally shut down his lectures without explanation, he is otherwise left uncensored. But Sandel’s promotion of internal moral compasses, while not directly subversive, is the antithesis of such a system. In arguing that a conception of the self, grounded in community, should come before that of ‘justice’, he offers something neither credit systems nor ‘harmonious’ Confucianism can offer: an individual search for meaning even within a community-based framework; an alternative to ‘hard truths’. Fellow philosophers and intellectuals, especially Chinese intellectuals, have been skeptical of Sandel’s reception in a country so scarred by communism, but Justice addresses some of the most important debates in modern Chinese society in terms of peaches, not onions. And there are no hard-and-fast answers: Sandel does, after all, admit that his course might make its students worse citizens before it makes them better ones.
Perhaps the sheer brevity within which China has reinvented itself is largely to blame for its sense of jīngshén kōngxū. While in the 20th century many other countries have also undergone radical change in their political, social and economic structures, they did not undergo them in the space of just three decades. In 2006, after Little Yueyue’s death, writer Zhang Lijia lamented that China is ‘a nation with 1.4 billion cold hearts’. Perhaps this is an inevitable side effect of conceptions of individuality and the self being bound up with an economic identity. In modern China, there has been seemingly little middle ground between individualist pursuits of wealth and financial stability, and communist or nationalist ideals which overshadow individuals completely. As China continues to tighten its external regulation on justice and morality, it remains to be seen whether any meaningful ‘middle ground’ could be found.